profile picture of Emily Windram
Emily Windram
Intern

Detecting Autism: Is Your Pediatrician Proactive Enough?

Feel like there's a disconnect between you and your pediatrician? You're not alone. A soon-to-be published study in the Journal of Pediatrics examined how healthcare providers reacted (or didn't react) when parents voiced concerns about their children — and discovered that it plays a major role in delayed autism diagnoses.

A group of Oregon-based researchers analyzed a  nationwide survey of parents whose children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or nonspecific intellectual disability/development delays (ID/DD). They recorded the steps of each diagnosis: the age of the child when his or her parents initially raised concerns to a pediatrician, the response of the pediatrician and the actual age of diagnosis for children with ASD.

On average, parents brought up ASD concerns to their healthcare providers when their children were about two years old and brought up ID/DD concerns at about three years old. Yet even though their parents spoke out earlier, children with ASD had 14 percent fewer doctors take proactive measures than children with ID/DD. That means that their doctors were not only less likely to conduct developmental tests or recommend specialists, they were more likely to reassure parents that the child would "grow out of it." The study concludes that the passive group of pediatricians took up to two extra years to diagnose ASD, compared to the proactive pediatricians. Overall, children were not diagnosed with ASD until about age five.

Katharine Zuckerman, MD, MPH, writes that the behavior of pediatricians "is likely a very important factor" in delayed identification of ASD. Because early intervention is key for children with autism, the wait is a serious problem, especially when parents sense the issues early on. It's vital that pediatricians listen when parents reach out, so that children can get the early therapy they need.